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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Prime minister's questions
Commentary
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

Tony Blair kept looking behind him when being challenged over the decision to re-deploy UK troops in Iraq.

Iraq once again dominated questions
Was he looking for cheers of support from his backbenchers, or watching for the knives spinning towards his back?

He got neither. Possibly worse, however, was what he did get - almost complete silence.

Even loyalist MPs sat motionless, order papers clasped in their laps, eyes staring straight ahead as Mr Blair - with his angry head on once again - rejected all suggestions he was up to something.

Michael Howard hobbled himself by stating categorically that he would support the re-deployment of troops without a vote in the Commons.

So his questions about whether the decision had already been made and why the US needed 650 UK troops when they had 130,000 of their own in theatre sailed past the post.

Back for Christmas

Similarly, Charles Kennedy's pledge to oppose a re-deployment unless the request came from a British commander to carry out existing duties, also failed to draw blood.

What Labour backbenchers did not appear to like, however, was the prime minister's apparent confirmation that the proposed re-deployment was indeed going to happen.

Mr Blair needed to watch his back
First, the prime minister declared that "if" the Black Watch was re-deployed, they would still be back for Christmas.

Then he went on to declare that he could not say where the Black Watch "were going".

There is also huge frustration amongst Labour backbenchers that they cannot find a reasonable answer to Mr Howard's question of why 650 Brit troops could make such a difference for the US.

Neither are many of them yet persuaded that this is not some sort of political ruse by President Bush to boost his election hopes.

Freezer treatment

And behind all this lies the genuine fear that UK troops risk getting sucked into a deeper and longer conflict in much the way American soldiers did in Vietnam three decades ago.

So rather than any great show of support from his MPs, Tony Blair got the freezer treatment.

The mood lifted a little with the last question when Tory Anthony Steen found himself incapable of pronouncing homoeopathic medicine and, instead, made the alternative treatment sound like some sort of gay activity.

To everyone's astonishment , the heavily accented Speaker "Gorbals Mick" Martin leapt to his aide. And also got it wrong (I think, not always possible to tell).

The prime minister answered the question, toyed with the idea of a joke then clearly thought better of it.

But this had not been a happy question time for Mr Blair.




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